Could it be argued that the human dimension of spaceflight represents an expression of national power in the context of the “positive liberal state” by the United States? Could we further make the case that human spaceflight celebrates the use of state power for public good? Those are interesting questions that deserve serious consideration.
Human exploration of the solar system was always viewed as reasonable and forward-looking and led to “good” results for all concerned. Without perhaps seeking to do so, human space exploration, at least in its U.S. incarnation, offered an important perspective on a debate that has raged over the proper place of state power since the beginning of the republic. As only one example as to how this has played out over time, in the early nineteenth century the Whig Party sought an activist government that would accomplish important tasks for the benefit of all. In his book, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (University of Chicago Press, 1979), Daniel Walker Howe eloquently called the Whigs the champions of “the positive liberal state.” He wrote:
this ideal implied the belief that the state should actively seek ‘to promote the general welfare, raise the level of opportunity for all men, and aid all individuals to develop their full potentialities.’ The Democrats, by contrast, believed in a ‘negative liberal state,’ which left men free to pursue their own definition of happiness. A great advantage of this distinction between the parties is that it implies a connection between the economic and moral aspects of Whiggery. In both cases, the Whigs believed in asserting active control. They wanted ‘improvements,’ both economic and moral, and they did not believe in leaving others alone.
Perhaps the most persistent aspect of the Whig world view was the party’s resoluteness in using political power for the furtherance of those ideals that it believed were valuable.
Like the Whigs, the Democrats of the 1960s believed in activist government and the human spaceflight program represented one of its major accomplishments. Examples of governmental activism on the part of the Kennedy administration abound, and David Halberstam shrewdly observed of them in his book, The Best and the Brightest (Viking, 1973), : “if there was anything that bound the men, their followers, and their subordinates together, it was the belief that sheer intelligence and rationality could answer and solve anything.”
This translated into an ever-increasing commitment to the use of government authority to achieve “good ends.” The war on poverty, the Peace Corps, support for civil rights, the Great Society programs of Lyndon Johnson, and a host of other initiatives are all examples. These all represented a broadening of governmental power for perceived positive purposes, at least as far the supporters all believed.
Absent the power sharing relations present on Earth—state to state, local to national, philosophy to philosophy—the regime above the Earth’s atmosphere has been ruled by concentrated state power, much of it U.S. power, often hidden behind beguiling masks of the positive liberal state. Most observers of human spaceflight have accepted at face value the benign nature of this power, even as they recognize that it rests with the military-industrial complex and the scientific-technological elite of the United States. They have ignored the subtle nature of strenuous and sometimes capricious governmental power in this experience.
At sum, Americans view this as an implementation of a grand visionary concept for human exploration that may be directly traced to the European voyages of discovery beginning in the fifteenth century. Given this observation, human spaceflight has been celebrated as an investment in technology, science, and knowledge that would enable humanity—or at least Americans—to do more than just dip its toes in the cosmic ocean, to become a truly spacefaring people. Accordingly, Americans have taken as a measure of the majesty of this vision the length of time, complexity, and expense of the program, and the linkage of the length of time, complexity, and expense of these efforts to earlier explorations. The Spanish exploration of the Americas proved time-consuming, complex, and expensive. So did the efforts of other European powers in the sweepstakes of exploration and imperialism that took place over long periods made possible by these explorations. The human exploration of space was much the same only more so, and this made it special and grand and visionary.
Advocates of an aggressive space exploration effort have argued that returns on investment in this age of exploration, which are only now beginning to be realized, involve the geophysical inventory of the planets and the exploitation of these new regions for all types of commercial ventures that have changed our lives. Remote sensing satellites have made life strikingly different from what it was only a generation ago as satellite images of weather patterns enable meteorologists to forecast storms, as communications satellites transform our ability to move information, and as global positioning satellites provide instantaneous reliable navigational information. The sum total of these efforts has informed our perspective on the world around us. It is also appropriate that by analogy we also question the peculiarity of exploration by civilizations. Ingrained as it became in Western culture beginning in the sixteenth century, it gave birth to the scientific revolution and the transformation of western beliefs and ideals in response to it.
The power of the positive liberal state to explore space has become a symbol of modern America and numerous presidents have sought to use this set of beliefs in the last fifty years. For example, President George W. Bush acted on January 14, 2004, to announce that NASA should focus its energies on human exploration of the Moon and Mars because of this lament for a visionary space program, a lá the penultimate triumphs of the Moon landings in the 1960s and early 1970s. Bush moved to refocus the nation on the grand vision of exploration. He declared that America would return to the Moon between 2015 and 2020. With sufficient diligence and resources, of course, virtually anything humans can imagine in spaceflight may be achieved. His efforts represented only the most recent example of the invoking of spaceflight in the service of a positive liberal state. As such, it sought to conjure the earlier exciting experience of astronauts walking on the Moon. While there were setbacks, the experience of the eleven years of Apollo between 1961 and 1972 contained more triumph and tragedy, more heroic sacrifice, more strenuous effort than many wars and served as a reminder to all of the activism of the positive liberal state.